• Michael Skalka

Better Living Through Chemistry?

Synthetic Artists’ Papers



When I originally planned the Syntax of Color website, one goal was to focus on new products. Time and other responsibilities got away from me and that aspect of the website has languished. However, it is interesting to note that despite subscribing to Art Materials Retailer and reading each issue, I would find it rather hard to review a product that has relevance to plein air or studio artists working in the band of media that we usually associate with painters who do landscapes, still lives or portraits.

I don’t think anyone of you wants to hear about the latest mylar films or what’s new in drafting tape. In addition, so much of the retail market is craft driven. Markers to draw on glass bottles, paper for making masks for children and all sorts of color markers and crayons fill the space of each retail issue.

One area that draws repeated questions is on paper. This is the one medium that still is made for both artists and commercial applications. Unfortunately, the number of makers of fine arts papers is dwindling. Family paper makers may cease production upon the death of the elder paper makers. Other small mills get purchased by larger companies and sometimes their assets are sold to generate revenue. Since paper still has important commercial applications, for the moment, products will remain in production for artists.


Years ago, almost every decent stationery store (do these stores still exist?) carried Crane Papers. Handsome letter paper with matching envelopes or smart little Thank You cards were stocked on the shelves of stationery stores. Today Crane still sells stationery but its revenue stream is derived from creating specialty papers, mainly monetary paper and security paper. The folks at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving that produce our money only hint at the security features that are built into the paper that is used to print money. Sorry, Crane will not sell blank sheets of paper intended for bank notes to the public so you can pursue a life of crime as a forger.


While a large essay could be devoted to artists’ papers, I am focusing on one of the only new products that is being advertised currently. The product is polypropylene paper. No trees were cut down to produce this product. But if you want something eco-friendly, note that polypropylene is a derivative of polypropylene gas, when crude oil is broken down into its many chemical components.


Polypropylene paper has a soft felt-like structure. Artists are experimenting with it and adopting it as the substrate for the medium of their choice. At trade shows, it is marketed to watercolor and alcohol ink artists. When examining polypropylene as an industrial material more closely, it is known to be sensitive to UV energy and chlorinated materials. A manufacturing advisory consulting firm guiding manufacturers on the properties of materials also claims that it is sensitive to heat, susceptible to oxidation, is highly flammable and difficult to paint. Hopefully, these industrial disadvantages related to polypropylene do not apply to these paper-like sheets.

Like all industrial materials put into service in the art materials world, it takes a bit of research to understand the advantages and disadvantages of a new product. What is of poor quality for one application may be outstanding for another. Polypropylene is so embedded in commercial applications that the applications it is good for are tested in the commercial world, not the fine arts world. The best that purveyors of art materials can do is to extrapolate results from commercial testing to determine the viability of a product for the fine arts community.


Commercial applications don’t always consider longevity as a major factor, unless one is focusing on materials for critical performance issues like airplane engines and any device embedded in a human being that keeps them alive. The criteria for those applications may have no bearing on a completely different use case for the same polymer such as polypropylene.


So, while a vast amount of data looks very good regarding the qualities of polypropylene, it is more difficult to determine if polypropylene will have extended long-term stability since it was not originally designed to be an art material. These synthetic “papers” are borrowed from other industries. A similar polypropylene product like Yupo, was originally manufactured to be a barrier between integrated circuit boards, not as a watercolor paper for artists. Hopefully, it will display good long-term integration.


Polypropylene paper seems to be geared toward artists who use alcohol inks to make their artwork. Advertised as being water resistant, it appears to only fit a certain media niche. It would be interesting to have it tested in art applications to see how it behaves in accelerated aging studies. Does it yellow? How sensitive is it to oxygen deterioration or UV light? It may be perfectly fine for a variety of art related uses. Only time will tell.


Syntax of Color

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